Tag Archives: local planning issues

Occupy Elm Court?

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From our perspective, the public review of the Front Yard/Amstar proposal for Elm Court represents a Berkshires variation on a “too big to fail” bail-out, strikingly similar to the sorts of public bail-outs of fraudulent corporate activities during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, bail-outs that precipitated the Occupy movement.

In the case of Elm Court, a wealthy family (Vanderbilt-Wilde-Berle) has allowed their sprawling mega-mansion to decay, and then has effectively transferred the cost of the repair to the public, by selling the derelict property to a corporate “partner” who will dump a four-story spa hotel into the heart of our densely settled residential neighborhood, all in the name of “saving” Elm Court.

We are disappointed that our local boards appear to be playing along with this toxic bail-out, without giving serious, detailed consideration to the carefully researched and wide-ranging objections submitted by the neighborhood.

Elm Court is not the only history worth preserving. Our neighborhood, including other former Gilded Age properties such as Bishop Estate and Winden Hill, has its own strong, vital history worthy of respect and preservation. Instead, we now face a future of digital speed signs, road-widenings and other so-called traffic calming measures that will forever change one of the most distinctive and appealing roads in the Berkshires. Over the long run, this will be seen as a profound loss to the town, and to the Berkshires.

Why has everyone — from Selectmen to town staff — so passively lined up behind such a preposterous scheme, without exploring more sustainable and more reasonable alternative uses? Why is the disrepair of a private property, once owned by one of the wealthiest families in United States history, a matter of public interest? Is there some deeply entrenched pattern of obedience to the Lord of the Manor in play here?

From the start of this long process, the applicant has refused to budge on the core issues of massive scale and high intensity of use. We hope that the Lenox ZBA will listen carefully to the depth and seriousness of our concerns, and impose strict conditions on the special permit, introducing a measure of moderation and balance to Front Yard LLC’s monolithic proposal.

Without such moderation and restraint, Front Yard can be  sure that the neighborhood will be openly hostile to their wretched big-box “Travaasa” spa-hotel for many years to come. Further, the town of Lenox will have alienated an entire neighborhood by selling us out to a shadowy real estate “fund” who successfully played rope-a-dope with town boards, slipping through review with major aspects of their plans left undisclosed and undiscussed.

The problem with such actions? Public trust and good will are currencies you can only spend once. Once they are gone, they are likely gone for a long time.

Round Two

As reported by the Berkshire Eagle, Front Yard LLC recently submitted its application for a Special Permit to the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals. The Lenox Zoning Bylaw identifies conditions for approval that are strikingly similar to the Stockbridge criteria, though they were largely  ignored or trivialized by the Stockbridge Selectmen.

Those six specific areas of concern are highlighted below, in bold. We trust that the Lenox ZBA, with input from the Planning Board, and from truly independent consultants, will carefully consider the long list of questions that went unanswered in Stockbridge.

1. Community needs served by the proposal.

Has the applicant persuasively demonstrated the need for yet another spa resort in our community? What market analysis and demographic projections have they submitted to substantiate the need for this resort? What is their business model, and how does it compare to other large resorts such as the recently permitted Spring Lawn development? What impact will this massive development have on our B & Bs and existing inns and resorts?

As for claims of new jobs: have they submitted detailed information as to the wage and salary structure of their proposed staff? Will these wages and salaries permit employees to actually live in Lenox, with their children attending Lenox schools?

Does this proposal meet the statewide criteria for “Smart Growth”? The answer to that would be an obvious “NO”, in stark contrast to the Spring Lawn development, which does in fact meet most of those criteria. Numerous young (21 and under) Berkshire residents stated during the Stockbridge “hearing” that their vision of the future Berkshire economy centers on local food production, small creative businesses and sustainable enterprises, NOT on franchise-style resorts such as the proposed big-box annex at Elm Court. Such testimony fell on deaf ears. While many will pay lip service to the “needs of Berkshire young people”, very few ever listen to what they have to say.

We urge everyone within the process to keep in mind that the parent company Amstar is not in the resort or hospitality business; they make their money on the exit from properties. There is no guarantee that the “Travaasa” brand will be around in five years from now, let alone a generation or two. What happens when they flip the property to Hilton, who then flips to Holiday Inn, and onwards down the food chain?

2. Traffic flow and safety, including parking and loading.

The materials submitted by the applicant are restricted to idiotic “level of service” traffic studies, using a methodology that is truly in the dark ages of pseudo-science. Our position from the start has been that this methodology may be fine for evaluating whether to put another Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown Pittsfield, but is wholly irrelevant to evaluating the impact of dropping a 112 room mega-resort into an historic, residential neighborhood. Our concerns center around safety, having to do with the road topography and alignment characteristics, as well as with speeding and other driving behaviors that suggest that adding a major new category of traffic will end in tragedy.

Beyond those “big picture” concerns: how will staff be trained to arrive and depart work? How will large commercial service vehicles be routed, to mitigate safety and noise concerns in the neighborhood? How will guests be directed to arrive to the resort?

Much has been written about the idea of a sidewalk; it should be clear that while there are some neighborhood residents who favor a sidewalk, there are many others who believe that such an “amenity” will further destroy the character of our neighborhood. Surely, such a major project can only be pursued on the basis of solid consensus. At present, there is no such consensus – far from it!

3. Adequacy of utilities and other public services.

We are aware that there is adequate capacity at present to serve the water and waste needs of the proposed development. However, large projects inevitably carry unforeseen consequences, and thus it is prudent to make sure that the town is protected should the sewage hit the proverbial fan in the future. To build new town infrastructure just because because a single corporate land owner promises to pay for it (short term) represents a terrible way to conduct local planning. It’s the sort of impulsive money-grabbing that invariably creates major headaches down the road.

4. Neighborhood character and social structures.

The most respected neighborhood character expert in New England expressed dismay that such a massive project would ever be considered in a low-key, family oriented neighborhood such as Old Stockbridge Road. His detailed report is available here, and summarized here. For a general description of existing neighborhood character from the point of view of those who live here, see this post.

There is a persistent rumor that the applicant intends to market the Elm Court facility as a regional Wedding Mill, with multiple weddings scheduled every day of the wedding season. Such intensive use (particularly on weekends) would have massive impacts on the ability of residents to enjoy their properties in peace and quiet, as well as raising serious safety concerns of alcohol use and driving on our hilly, winding road. Reasonable limits must be placed on the hosting of weddings and other such events, e.g. one per weekend.

Similarly, the restaurant should not be open to the public; does the town of Lenox truly suffer from a dearth of restaurant options? We think not.

5. Impacts on the natural environment.

Much has been said about how this proposal protects “open space”; yet there is presently no guarantee that this is not merely Phase A of a far more intensive development yet to come in Phase B and Phase C, via townhouses, condos, mansion “units” and other amenities such as tennis courts, stables, etc. Will the applicant agree to placing a Conservation Restriction on the rest of the property, held by the Lenox Land Trust, or by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council?

6. Potential economic and fiscal impact to the Town, including impact on town services, tax base, and employment.

We do not know what the impact will be; and in the absence of a professional, independent study and analysis based on hard data from the hospitality industry, neither does anybody else. It is easy to say that “all development is positive”, but what happens if, over the long term, as this resort slides down the hospitality industry food chain, the value of adjacent properties (most of which are in Lenox) depreciates by 30%, or even 50%? What happens to the tax base then? Or: what happens if this resort is the final blow to our B & Bs, most of which are already struggling to sustain themselves? Lenox could well end up with a net fiscal loss to the Town, a loss that will make any short-term fee revenues appear like fool’s gold.

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Following the one-sided and unfair process that unfolded in Stockbridge, we trust that the Lenox Planning Board and ZBA will consider all issues objectively, with particular attention to the legitimate and deeply held concerns of abutters and other directly impacted neighbors and longstanding town citizens, concerns that were summarily dismissed during the sham process in Stockbridge.

We urge that Town Manager Chris Ketchen, Town Planner Gwen Miller and members of both the Planning Board and ZBA walk (not just drive) down Old Stockbridge Road, and get a sense for the neighborhood and the character of the road, from ground level. We extended this same invitation to the Stockbridge Selectmen, though it seems they were only willing to attend tea & champagne parties at Elm Court.